Passing Down Family Recipes

By Diana Sunshine

Every Thanksgiving, I love listening to NPR’s Susan Stamberg share Mama Stamberg’s zesty cranberry relish. She claims it’s Pepto-Bismol pink, and although it sounds terrible, it’s incredibly delicious. Susan has shared it with thousands of listeners and the recipe lives on.

Recipes are passed down generation to generation, many of them unwritten. But what happens when the core person preparing the meal passes away? Who carries on the tradition? For our family, my mother-in-law passed before we were able to archive her most loved recipes. To ensure your family’s recipes continue into the future, create and share a simple, digital recipe book. It doesn’t need to be a comprehensive list––just the top three to five keepers. Then, prepare these meals together. Learning through experience is the best way to transfer your knowledge to your children and grandchildren.

My mother-in-law, Kay Albertson Sutton Onderdonk, was an exceptional cook and holiday hostess. She was known for her traditional Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas roast beef with yorkshire pudding, and Easter deviled eggs. She decorated her stunning home for the holidays from top to bottom––replete with clippings from her award-winning garden. Her annual gingerbread homes, hand-crafted for more than 40 years, were original, intricate, and personalized to mark the significant occasions of the year. Stand out designs were a hot air balloon, the Great Pyramids of Giza, and a castle. But her most spectacular holiday tradition was Christmas plum pudding with hard sauce that she would dramatically ignite with grain alcohol captivating the entire table especially her grandchildren. 

This Thanksgiving marks the second one since my mother-in-law passed away. For 15 years, I assisted her in preparing Thanksgiving dinner. After she had early onset dementia, we shifted roles, where I cooked and she assisted. Due to the annual repetition of cooking together, her traditional Thanksgiving meal is indelibly marked in my memory. I don’t need recipes or even a shopping list. I know it by heart. This week, I honor her memory by preparing her traditional thanksgiving meal for our family. 

I’m cognizant of the importance of carrying on family recipes, and some of ours may be lost. Along with my sister-in-laws, we combed through cookbooks, recipe cards, and files to locate our favorite ones. We have found her beloved coffee cake recipe which she made year round at every family gathering. Unfortunately, we are still searching for her original Christmas plum pudding recipe.

Learn from our experience and take the time to document and share your family recipes with your children and grandchildren. This year, I will be inviting my children, nieces, and nephews to join in the Thanksgiving dinner prep. 

May your traditions continue on. Happy Thanksgiving!


Diana Sunshine is the founder of Big Retired Life who is a mission-driven, community builder with 20+ years experience in EdTech, Fundraising, and Non-Profit management.

Throughout the “Sandwich Years” section of this blog, we will provide you support for launching children into adulthood while caring for aging parents.

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